Her Own Devices

The quiet mystery and harsh poetry of Valérie Massadian's Nana
by Robert Koehler  posted January 12, 2012
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To start the New Year, the Museum introduces First Look, a new annual showcase curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz. This two-weekend program—which brings together some of the most invigorating and inventive voices in contemporary world cinema, including established and emerging filmmakers—affirms our belief in cinema as a flourishing art form. To supplement the program, Moving Image Source is running a series of essays on all the feature films that are being shown. Check back daily from now through next weekend for new articles.

The sadness permeating Valérie Massadian's debut feature, Nana, flows from the tributaries of a family: a loquacious, imaginative little girl (Kelyna Lecomte), her stressed and awkward mother (Marie Delmas), and her loving pig-farmer grandfather known as Pappy (Alain Sabras). These three, never seen as a unit in any of Massadian's beautiful yet unsparing frames (she is co-cinematographer with Léo Hinstin), form a strange family dynamic. The most words are spoken by the youngest member; an unsettled and still boiling anger seethes within the mother (and is directed for unknown reasons at Pappy), and a balanced work ethic and paternal care informs all of Pappy's actions. Some terrible things have happened before the film's action, other bad things during it, but Massadian is less interested in showing them than suggesting their aftereffects and the ways in which people—no matter their size or age—continue to simply live, despite circumstances. The film is informed by a subtlety uncommon in most first works, and that subtlety is derived, somehow, out of great pain.


Kelyna Lecomte in Nana

The opening images show Nana and a few other children watching as Pappy and his farmhands slaughter a pig. The first words, over black, which sound like they're from little Nana herself: "He's going to be dead, your pig." This is a hard world, in which children are allowed to be an audience at the earliest possible age to the processes of death. This is why Massadian wants the audience also to be an audience to it, and why the slaughter must be real. This scene, perhaps the most extraordinary filmic tribute yet to Jean Eustache (it literally recalls his early short masterpiece, Le Cochon, which surely belongs on any serious desert island list of essential films), insists immediately on the values of the real, and the intersection of fiction and nonfiction within a de-dramatized yet narrativized space. For judging by this scene alone, as well as the subsequent scenes of Pappy taking Nana into a large barn to watch a fresh batch of piglets scurrying about, or showing her how to set a fox trap in the nearby woods (foxes being natural pig predators), viewers would think they're watching some kind of documentary about a grandfather showing his cute, tiny, talkative granddaughter the farming ropes.

Only when Delmas is first seen, angrily striding, looking in an awful hurry and then scribbling a note on Pappy's windshield signed, "Your Daughter," is the intrusion of a sort of drama felt. A human disturbance, errant and unstable, the kind of character whose very presence stirs nothing but nervous reactions, Nana's mom is barely that. She virtually drags Nana to a wreck of a formerly good country house, as if she's getting away from something. She seems in a rush to nowhere, and seems to consider Nana more of a nuisance than her child. At the same time, Massadian establishes some genuinely touching moments between this woman and Nana, gradually suggesting that the girl—if she's around her long enough—humanizes the woman, and even makes her laugh. In actions like washing her down in a shower or reading her a fable of how a "Great Spirit" exchanged the hearts of a man and a dog (thus explaining why people are now so mean, and dogs so sweet), the mother verges on tenderness and connection. Nana is, in many ways, a montage of observed moments where things happen, or nearly happen and then don't quite, and this hesitancy toward completion—a verging but never an accomplishment, action tentatively begun but not finished—characterizes the film in interesting ways.


Marie Delmas and Kelyna Lecomte in Nana

This tentativeness is combined with ellipses to forge a feeling of dread for what might happen to Nana, but not dread in a cheap dramatized fashion: after the book reading, a brief shot shows the mother trudging away from the house the next day, and then Nana herself walking alone on a roadside and then into the woods, and it's clear something has happened, and will happen. The connection to fairy tales, in their running themes of children getting lost in the woods, is unmistakable, but Massadian subverts this with her next remarkable sequence, in which the game Lecomte is the only figure onscreen for several minutes, her Nana doing the best she can to play homemaker, arrange her food and bedding in the house, and even roast a fox caught in the trap. The now-missing adults in her life, who have been made so vivid in the first 36 minutes of the film, register as ghosts at this point, and the indelible fear that Nana may now be permanently alone wells up like a terrible, insistent dream. Again, Massadian subverts this notion, for Nana is so collected, so full of her own imaginative life, so able to carry on out-loud conversations with her stuffed animals or possibly an imaginary friend, that fear never seems to touch her as it does viewers.


Kelyna Lecomte in Nana

Massadian (with co-editor Dominique Auvray) makes her final ellipsis her most startling and surreal, a weird blending of Buñuel and René Clément, a return to the opening scene and a child's direct gaze on death. Another return completes the film, and with it, a suggestion of safety, but the camera isn't so sure. The certain distance between the lens and Massadian's characters denies the warm and fuzzies in favor of something more critical, and this is where the impact of photographer Nan Goldin, with whom Massadian worked for some years, is most emphatic. The images never copy Goldin's famous photographs, but rather absorb some of their characteristics, including a bleached-out coloration, solitary confinement, unemotional sadness, harsh poetics, people on the edge of maybe doing something strange or dangerous. The negotiation of a critical cinematic intelligence, which is felt in every moment of Nana, with an emotional underbelly deeply concerned with the care and loving of an innocent amidst a state of nature, is the most impressive aspect of a film that, once seen, is hard to shake off. 


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Kelyna Lecomte in Nana, directed by Valérie Massadian
Photo Gallery: Her Own Devices


January 6–15, 2012 First Look


First Look  |  Valérie Massadian  |  Nana  |  film review  |  French cinema  |  motherhood


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Robert Koehler is a film critic contributing to Variety, Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Cineaste and Film Journey, and a festival programmer.

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